by Gautam Jagannath

Creative is one of the oldest computer sound card companies, and the introduction of their Audigy 2 ZS series sound card for PCMCIA allowed mainstream notebook users to tack on a 5.1/7.1 surround sound system to their portable. The much anticipated follow up for the new Expresscard port takes their higher end, X-Fi name, while preserving the same features. The X-Fi Xtreme Audio retails for around $80, while it is available online for considerably less.



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In the Box

  • X-Fi Expresscard/54 Soundcard
  • White Earbuds with In-Line Microphone
  • Travel Case (Faux Leather)
  • Driver CD & Manual


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Design

The X-Fi for notebooks is small and silver. When inserted into the Expresscard/54 slot, a small portion  protrudes out. The ports are located here for audio in/out connections as well as for a proprietary speaker dock. The silver color will clash with all dark colored notebooks.

Many new notebooks have audio out ports on the front. This is inconvenient for a home theater/jukebox setup. This alone may be a reason to get a sound card – this one, for example - as it places the audio port on the side, making the cord situation less obtrusive.

Creative includes a sturdy, black false-leather travel case for the sound card. The usefulness of this item is however questionable. Users of the X-Fi sound card will probably never remove it from the port. More confusing is Creative's inclusion of “iPod” white ear-buds, which is not aesthetically paired with anything included at all. Case, card and headphones are all color mismatched. 


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Specifications 

 Creative X-Fi ExpresscardCreative Audigy 2ZS PCMCIAIntel HD Audio (Post-2005 Notebooks)Intel AC'97 (Pre-2005)
Stereo/Surround24-bit/96kHz24-bit/96kHz24-bit/96kHz16-bit/48kHz
SPDIF24-bit/96kHz (48kHz in Vista)24-bit/96kHzN/AN/A
Recording24-bit/96kHz24-bit/96kHz24-bit/96kHz16-bit/48kHz


The big leap in numbers comes from AC'97 users. How many AC'97 users have ExpressCard? Probably very few, or none, since Intel HD Audio arrived with the Sonoma platform in 2005.

Vista is shunned by Creative, dealing only 48 kHz to its SPDIF out. The end result is poorer home theater support in Vista. It is hard to say why Creative gave reduced Vista support, but considering that the X-Fi Xtreme Audio is just a re-branded Soundblaster Audigy SE, it seems that a driver workaround may appear in the modding community.

Features

Unlike its predecessor, the X-Fi for notebooks does not include the 5.1/7.1 speaker dock. This is unfortunately a separate purchase – undoubtedly a disappointment for those who would like a true surround sound set-up out of the box. The speaker dock is mysteriously not available online or in stores, but will provide true 4.1/5.1/7.1 support. There has been no word on the pricing of this module.

The X-Fi features support for 2.0/2.1 speakers and headphones without need for additional equipment. Included is a pair of headphones with an in-line mic. This is useful for VOIP and online conferencing, but the provided microphone  is not meant for high-fidelity applications.

The optical/line in jack can accept synthesizers, electric guitars, pre-amps, and of course microphones. Creative provides bloatware software, but the audio console is soothing blue. The volume dial is a treat to use – a round dial similar to amplifier volume controls. Creative has a provided soft red light illuminating the line out port for easy jacking in of headphones in the dark.

X-Fi Crystallizer

Is Creative's proprietary 24-bit digital signal processor that acts as a dynamic equalizer, enhancing the low and high ends of the audio spectrum.

CMSS 3D

CMSS is a virtual 3D surround sound effect. It provides a virtual surround sound feel in a dual speaker environment, such as on a 2.1 setup or for headphones.

EAX

EAX takes advantage of in-game effects by utilizing audio presets that simulate the gaming environment. EAX also allows the emulation of certain environments, such as an Opera Hall or Amphitheater. This is most probably achieved through reverb control.

EQ

This is a standard graphical Equalizer, with ten music presets.

The features on the X-Fi Xtreme Audio are software driven.

Sound Quality

Tests were performed using OGG files encoded at 256 kBps.

Music Analysis

Perhaps the most significant improvement is in the bass – which is far more “punchier” as Creative advertises. This aspect is a direct result of the X-Fi crystallizer feature offered in the  Overall, sound is clearer and vibrant when compared to on-board audio. Without the X-Fi DSP processing, the usefulness of the card becomes less on headphones. The software features on the X-Fi tend to color the sound, so critical listeners would choose not to use them.

Home Theater

This unit is great for a watching Hollywood movies, due to the bass boost it provides. Bass is crucial for action-adventure sequences. Along with gaming, it is with movies that a surround sound 5.1/7.1 system is useful. The Creative audio console allows one to adjust the virtual environment of the room. Some options include Theater and Recital Hall. The blue indicator light that shines brightly is a minor annoyance when the room is dark for home theater purposes.

Video Game Performance

The Creative Audigy2 ZS soundcard for PCMCIA touted improved video game performance, while the X-Fi for Expresscard does not. Let's see if any game performance improvements can be seen with the X-Fi by using FRAPS in Vista.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Frames per Second (FPS) Creative X-Fi XtremeIntel HD Audio
Minimum99
Maximum3430
Average2119


Tests are the result of an average of three one minute, combined indoor and outdoor frame rates. Oblivion patched to v.1.2.0416 and modded NVIDIA ForceWare 158 drivers on an Asus F3sv-A1 with 2GB of RAM.

These test were certainly surprising. I had previously balked at the idea that on-board sound could actually be detrimental for frame-rates. I was certainly quite wrong. It seems that driving sound is at least processing intensive enough to reduce frame rates, even if minimally so. In the case of Oblivion, using the X-Fi Xtreme Audio could mean gaining a few frames per second for identical gaming conditions.

Ubuntu Linux Test-Run

Ubuntu 7.04 does not recognize the sound card instantly. However, lspci detects the presence of an Unknown Creative Labs device.

The ALSA Project states that the Xtreme Audio is “just a SB Live 24bit with a new name.” This means that using the ALSA drivers for the Audigy 2 or SE should work well for the Xtreme Audio.

System Requirements

  • Windows Vista or XP SP2, x64, or MCE
  • 512MB of RAM for Vista, 256MB RAM for XP
  • 600MB of free space
  • Expresscard/54 Slot

Note that Vista is given a cold shoulder from the start – you need more ram, not to mention that it would anyway be appallingly slow to have less than a gig of RAM in Vista. Another nuisance is that the 'driver' is massive – at six-hundred megabytes. Most of this space is taken up by bloatware software that Creative provides. Keep in mind that all Expresscard slots will not work with this unit – you must have the larger, Expresscard/54 port that is sometimes not present on smaller notebooks.

Creative has stated on their support pages that there are compatibility issues with the Fujitsu Lifebook E8210 and Fujitsu Siemens Amilo A1667G notebooks for various unknown reasons.

For those wondering, the 5.1/7.1 cable dock that came with the Audigy 2ZS is not compatible with the X-Fi's docking port.

Conclusion


For those people who really need a surround sound setup, the X-Fi Xtreme audio is a boon and a disappointment at once. While providing support for high end gaming and movie watching, the docking  module is a separate purchase. For those who intend to just use their headphones, the X-Fi will provide only a moderate improvement over built-in sound. The X-Fi is mostly intended for use with a speaker setup. On the whole, however, the benefits of an external sound card are numerous, and this is where the X-Fi Xtreme Audio for notebooks shines.

Pros

  • Expands notebook audio support
  • Gaming performance improvement

Cons

  • Speaker dock sold separately
  • Expensive
  • Compatibility issues